Today marks International Women’s Day, a day where people recognize the achievements and rights of women everywhere. Since it’s an agnostic day that’s not tied to one particular group, many countries, celebrities, and brands all recognize it.
But when corporations dip their toes into female empowerment, they can run into trouble when they co-opt the language without backing up that talk with action.
Andi Zeisler, author of “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl©, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement,” calls this gap between feminist advertising and feminist action “ ’empowertising’ —an advertising tactic of lightly invoking feminism in acts of exclusively independent consuming.” It’s a strategy where brands sell the idea of buying products associated with women as an empowering act through the logic that “being female is in itself a constant source of empowerment.”
But don’t get fooled into thinking that this feminine branding will necessarily lead to women’s progress. As Zeisler reminds us, “Advertising has one job to do, and it’s not to reflect the nuances of social movements.”
Take how fast-food giant McDonald’s decided to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day as a cautionary tale of how your positive message can clash spectacularly with how your company actually treats its female employees.
For International Women’s Day, McDonald’s announced that it was flipping its trademarked golden arches upside-down, changing its ‘M’ to a ‘W.’ The company physically flipped the ‘M’ in one Lynwood, California, restaurant and it digitally flipped the arches across its social media channels.
“We have a long history of supporting women in the workplace, giving them the opportunity to grow and succeed,” company spokeswoman Lauren Altmin told CNBC.
But others were not buying the message, pointing out that McDonald’s actual history of female empowerment was checkered with sexual harassment complaints.
In 2016, the company was accused of ignoring sexual harassment allegations female employees raised. Moreover, the company, which netted $698.7 million in income in 2017, has fought against increasing the minimum wage it pays its workers. In 2015, it sued the city of Seattle to stop it from increasing the city’s minimum wage.
McDonald’s was not the only company “empowertising” women for International Women’s Day.
To honor its real women employees, KFC announced today it was doing the grand gesture of changing its logo from a man to a woman —with some caveats. The change would be temporary and not in the United States. KFC Malaysia said it was changing its logo of Colonel Sanders to his wife Claudia Sanders across its social media platforms online.
“This International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to Claudia Sanders for her role in the making of Malaysia’s favorite fried chicken. And to every woman whose ideas, hard work and passion contribute to making the world a better place. Thank you,” the company’s Malaysian website said in a statement.
Other companies are also honoring women this Women’s History month by changing their male brand ambassadors on logos to women. That’s right, people everywhere can now buy Brawny Woman paper towel rolls and Jane Walker whiskey, and rejoice at women’s progress!
These symbols come off as empty gestures of pandering when they link the power of a product like a paper towel to the power of a social and political movement like International Women’s Day. And even on a design level, these gestures can seem hollow by their temporary nature.
After these celebrations of women end, what does it mean that these branding logos are likely to go back to being men?
This is not the only time International’s Women’s Day has been the cause of a corporate feminism fail. During last year’s International Women’s Day, State Street Global Advisors, an investment firm, unveiled a Fearless Girl statue to face off against the Charging Bull statue on New York City’s Wall Street. State Street said it funded the statue of the defiant young girl to celebrate “the power of women in leadership.”
This was a positive message that contrasted with the realities of what employees at the asset manager experienced at the company. The U.S. Department of Labor later caught State Street paying its female employees less than men in an audit. To settle the allegations, State Street agreed to pay hundreds of its female executives $5 million.
Happy International Women’s Day!
So next time, you spot an instance of “empowertisement,” do a close reading of what is being sold and research what is happening behind closed doors at the companies. Ask yourself, ‘How are these gestures helping and championing real women that work at these brands?’
Monica Torres is a reporter for Ladders. She is based in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.